Tuesday, March 9, 2010

X-Men Forever Vol.1: Picking Up Where We Left Off

My first X-Men comic was Uncanny #168, which introduced me to proxy girlfriend Kitty Pryde, the sublime art of Paul Smith, and the distinctive writing of Chris Claremont. I liked it, but didn't become a regular reader until the following year's release of the classic reprint/alternate ending special Phoenix: The Untold Story, coupled with a fantastic "Marvel heroes in the Hyborian Age" two-parter in the regular series. I bought Uncanny more or less continuously for the rest of the decade, marking it as the first title I collected devoutly over a long period of time. I loved the richness of the mutant world, the complexity of the characters and their relationships, and the sheer weight of it all. Between the strained history and rampant verbiage, Uncanny was a meaty read, and usually graced with the finest artists besides. Back when I still had to scrape up pocket change for each comic I bought, it was a no-brainer purchase.

Claremont was prone toward the long view, and began an enormous ├╝ber-arc around #200 that ran, and ran, and ran for eighty issues and endless tie-ins until 1991. My patience wore out shy of the halfway point, but the departure of the disagreeable Marc Silvestri in favor of the ascendant Jim Lee and upward story momentum won me back. When a second adjectiveless X-Men series launched by that team, I bought a rare two copies (the first week of release plus the later high end edition) to do my part to get the debut's sales in the neighborhood of eight million copies. Although the arc in the first three issues did nothing for me, the previous two years worth of work earned the creative team a lot of leeway under my good graces. It was troubling then that after ongoing conflict with editor Bob Harras, Claremont left his babies after sixteen years of guidance in the hands of artists-turned-dilettante-writers and company hacks. I stuck it out until 1993 on the uneven Uncanny, abandoned the consistently terrible new X-Men a few months prior, but broadly dumped the X-titles and became a mutie hater after retarded crossover The X-Cutioner's Song. Aside from occasional and very brief backsliding dalliances, I've been x-free for nearly twenty years.

You may fail to see the relevance of my sharing my personal reading habits at length, but all will become clear. You see, for me and a good many other fans, Chris Claremont simply was the X-Men. Though he toyed with us by working on some peripheral books, and misguidedly tried to ape edgy British writers on an ill-fated return to Uncanny, Claremont remained the heart and hope of the franchise for us old school types. Finally, in a stroke of genius, Marvel greenlit an ongoing series set in a parallel continuity where Claremont could pick up exactly where he left off with X-Men #3 and go from there. Of course, Claremont had told plenty of people what his original plans were over the years, assuming he would never get the chance to tell his tales. Thus, we have X-Men Forever, in which Claremont mingles those plans that previously hadn't born fruit with new twists.

It was important for you to know all this, because this book is in no way intended for the uninitiated. Claremont does an alright job reminding everyone which stories were in development in 1991, but I can't imagine anyone without a prior emotional investment giving a good goddamn. The entire first issue is exposition, plus a left-field love affair between Wolverine and Jean Grey that exists because fans have long wanted it and it flies in the face of the domesticated Jean & Scott as married couple conceived after Claremont left. The first issue even ends on an awkward cliffhanger that leaves the major reveal for a few pages into the follow-up. The pace also picks up here, with hints of nasty developments and reminders that things vaguely touched upon nineteen years ago would now be thoroughly employed. You definitely get the sense of a long delayed "new world order" to the title, but again, you'd have to have been there the first time for any of it to matter.

The third issue gets deep enough into an ongoing conspiracy and "WTF?" moments that the tale finally kicks in at a more objective level. The fourth is problematic, as a tendency toward "off" characterization on Claremont's on terms really starts to nag. There's a lot of silliness (who didn't hate Jean's awful '90s costume, but to try out a new one in the midst of this chaos, and an unflattering one besides...) and telling-instead-of-showing, all of it amusingly heavy-handed verging on camp. The fifth and final issue in this collection teases a line-up changes that never occurs, complete with more new poorly designed outfits to not look forward to. As one would expect from Claremont, virtually nothing gets resolved, and instead a whole kettle of new revelations and complications closes out the volume.

X-Men Forever is a nostalgia exercise that tries so desperately to be bold and shocking, you want to pat its eager head and give it a hug and/or Ritalin. Everyone is trying so hard, especially '90s John Byrne acolyte Tom Grummett with his period flare for feathering, they at least deserve an "e" for effort. It's a hot mess if you missed this kind of storytelling from back in the day, and likely perplexing to anyone else.

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